Dean Aragón

CEO and Vice Chairman
Shell Brands
“Let's obsess about the humans at the heart of our business”
Dean Aragon, CEO & Vice Chairman Shell Brands International, talks about his passion for the human element in marketing, and his refreshing approach to the often-overlooked relevance of B2B marketing.
How does it feel serving at the helm of one of the Earth's biggest brands? 
‘It's a very iconic, ubiquitous brand. But it's also a brand that needs to pivot into becoming a net-zero emissions energy brand. One that really enables the provision of more and cleaner energy so that progress can continue. Because we all need energy, but it needs to be cleaner.’

You say there's no such thing as B2B, it's all B to Humans. Please explain… 
‘Sometimes we get too hung up on these technicalities. Whether it's B2C, B2B or B2B2C, it's all B2H: business to humans. Or B4H: brands for humans. We tend to dehumanize the whole business and it becomes very transactional. To me, that's not what marketing is supposed to be about. It’s about customers. Marketing needs to always provide compelling, credible reasons for customers to return, to keep on preferring your brand, your products and services over others.’

What exactly is Shell Brands International? Is that different from the Shell brand? 
‘As a subsidiary of the Shell group we’re in charge of managing and marketing the Shell brand or trademark. I came from a company – Unilever - that was a house of brands. At Unilever the least known brand is the house brand, because there are bigger brands in the house. But Shell is a singularly branded house where that brand can provide equity into the different sub-brands, sub-products or service offerings.’

And what is your role exactly at Shell?
‘I'm effectively the Brand Guy. I look after the Shell brand and all of its permutations, how it plays out in the different divisions, units, products, and solutions that Shell offers.’

What was the major difference for you at Shell, after working for almost two decades at Unilever?
‘I came from a fundamentally marketing-orientated business, with very savvy marketers. The game was about: why is your idea better than mine? I went to a company where I had to leverage the power of an iconic, ubiquitous brand. The question at Shell isn't: why is your idea better? It's: why do we need you? What relevance do you bring to the business? That was an interesting pivot in my career. If I really knew what brands and marketing were about, could I transfer what I've learned and what I've practiced into such an environment?’

If it's all about business to humans, does that mean there's no difference in approach when you're talking to consumers or businesses?
‘There are obviously contextual differences. And by the way, B2B hasn't yet been fully explored and developed. A lot of the marketing education, training, capability and enablement is shaped by consumer goods marketing. There are less humans involved in B2B so you can actually know enough people to make up a significant part of your business. That’s impossible in FMCG, which is why in FMCG marketing, marketers tend to do projected research; you speak to a thousand and project it to a hundred million. That comes with a lot of inaccuracies. In B2B, 200 customers can make up 80 per cent of a huge multi-billion-dollar business. The stakes are much higher; you're not just buying a bottle of shampoo, you're buying very valuable materials that are crucial to your business. So, much more depends on finding the right partner in B2B marketing.’

Can you give us an example?
‘At Shell we sell a lot of lubricants to independent garage houses where cars get serviced. We sell to the shop owner and we market the quality and utility of our lubricants to the mechanics, so they can recommend our product to car owners. That is not dissimilar to Unilever, where we sold salon brands. You want the person sitting in the chair, whose hair is being styled, to appreciate your products. But technically you first have to go through the salon owners and hairdresser, and convince them that your product is worth recommending to their clients. So, you also have to know the customer of your customer. In B2B2C both parties are inescapably human. If all you know about them are data, and not deep psychological insights, then you would be pitching your products quite superficially.’

Can you really make an emotional connection selling lubricants and petrol, like you can with hair products?
‘You're connecting with human beings. The B2B customer, the fleet manager, the procurement director; they are all human. I don't think you should treat them as robots, I don't think you should treat it as just a transactional conversation. As humans, our so-called logical left brain may conclude, but our emotional, irrational right brain decides. That combination of buying what you have to offer for its form and function, whilst equally buying into your brand and what it stands for, that is a more enduring connection.’

If you talk about humans you talk about senses and sensory marketing. You're involved in the sound of Shell. Can you tell us a little bit more about that project?
‘If you treat the brand as human-like you have to adopt and adapt human qualities, such as sensory. There's a lot invested in the visual identity of a brand, but what about the sonic identity? I don't just mean the song that you play as a soundtrack, but the actual soundscape, an indelible sonic thumbprint. If you see the logo of a brand, what would it be like to hear that logo? That's what we did with the sonic brand of Shell. We call it SOS, the sound of Shell. As of today, we have over 700 arrangements with different genres depending on the mood and local flavor. We recorded the original orchestral sound at the iconic Abbey Road studios, by the way.’
Back to B2B marketing; do you feel it does not get the attention it deserves? 
‘Indeed. And I also don't think it gets the talent it deserves. A lot of FMCG marketers don't really see B2B marketing as a potential career path, because they're not necessarily involved in big advertising campaigns and they're not necessarily the most responsive in social media. But B2B has a lot to teach. If you approach it with a learner mindset, it will be a rich new chapter in your marketing career.’

What have you learned specifically? 
‘Because there are less humans involved, you can really understand the 'whys' not just the 'whats.' B2B also has a bigger emphasis on customer lifetime value. And there is an interesting challenge in how to inject more creativity in B2B, because humans are involved and they need that stimulation to respond.’

Can you give an example of a B2B marketing campaign that you're proud of?
‘That would be the aforementioned lubricants being sold to independent garages. This was in India, where customers usually earn points and promotional rewards, such as a free rucksack. Our marketers for lubricants decided: what are the human needs of our customers? Mechanics are generally underpaid, a lot of them are uninsurable. The team partnered with a medical health provider to give the mechanics free checkups, help them become insurable, help them with the tuition fees of their children. Now why isn't marketing more like this; more human, more caring?  In marketing, especially in the 21st century, we obsess a lot about the latest tech stuff, the latest social digital platform, the latest data. Let's obsess instead about the humans at the heart of our business. Because what makes us human, has not fundamentally changed.’
All this data we have doesn't necessarily offer any human insights, right? You need a bit of intuition and something else. A bit of magic. 
‘I wrote a chapter in the book Build Brilliant Brands about humanizing data with creativity. The abundance of data can literally hoodwink us into thinking we know so much. In reality, we know so little or we know so very superficially about our customers or our stakeholders. Because data is not the equivalent of insights, data is a lot of ‘whats’. Insights are the answers to 'why'. The 21st century marketer is being characterized as a data scientist. Instead, we need to be more like data alchemists. We need to convert the data into golden propositions, innovations, offers, so that it responds to those insights. A billion insight points times zero intervention is still zero. And you cannot reduce humans to bits of data because that is a failure of marketing.’

It's reassuring that you’re trying to bring back some humanity to marketing, a more human-centric approach.
‘I'm certainly trying to advocate that. I always try to remind myself and my team: ask the question why. What's the insight behind this? And maybe if we address that, we would be more effective.’

Where do you stand on purpose marketing?
‘Purpose means nothing if it doesn't feed the commercial success of the business. You're just growing a conscience when what you need to grow is a repeatedly successful business whose foundations are the good that it does. So, if you can profit from purpose, it becomes a repeatable model. Not just a bad, short-term CSR project that ends with the next leadership switch.’

How is Shell doing in reaching its net zero emissions goal by 2050?
‘We have very clear milestones, linked to the pay of 16,000 or more staff. So, it's more than just an ambition, it's a clear target. And we know that we have to accelerate that journey and that's why we say 2050 or sooner. When I joined Shell, my assignment number one was to refresh the Shell brand purpose. The purpose statement reads: we power progress together by providing more and cleaner energy solutions. This is even more relevant today. Purpose is a long-term journey. You never quite reach the North Star, but it should illuminate your pathways. I'm quite pleased that in February of last year we launched perhaps the fullest purpose driven iteration of our group strategy. We clearly laid out our plan to be a net zero emissions business by 2050 or sooner. But also, be conscious of respecting nature and powering lives. And of course, you have to generate shareholder value.’
You grew up in the Philippines and you're a proud Pinoy. Which lesson did your childhood give you in pursuing your professional career? 
‘When you grow up in a country like the Philippines, you dream of something bigger and better, but you don't quite know how to get it or where it is. My original dream was to be the Chief Economist of the Philippines, which is why I majored in economics. But then some brand managers from Procter & Gamble and Unilever came to our university career week talks. And I felt that brand management was more my cup of tea. It's almost like a combination of business and show business. That's how I got introduced into that world.’

You once said that the heart leads the mind to unthinkable places. What did you mean by that?
‘I find that passion, the ability to emotionally connect with an aim or ambition, powers you through. And if your heart is in there, your mind and your body will follow. It's almost impossible to be absolutely great at something you don't feel connected with.’
About Dean Aragon
As CEO and Vice-Chairman at Shell Brands International Dean is tasked with crafting Shell’s overall brand strategy, defining how Shell businesses must leverage the brand into compelling customer value-propositions. Prior to joining Shell in 2014, Dean spent nearly two decades at fast-moving consumer giant Unilever earning his stripes as global marketer in various senior positions.

About Shell
Shell is a British publicly traded multinational oil and gas company headquartered in London. It is one of the oil and gas ‘supermajors’ and by revenue and profits is one of the largest companies in the world, ranking within the top 10 of the Fortune global 500 since 2000. The company was formed in 1907 through the merger of Royal Dutch Petroleum Company of the Netherlands and The ‘Shell’ Transport and Trading Company of the United Kingdom.
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